UN climate summit: Why the Mediterranean should be high on the agenda

UN climate summit: Why the Mediterranean should be high on the agenda
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This year’s upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is shaping up to be a memorable and historic one, and nowhere is this truer than in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin.  

The COVID-19 pandemic forced summit postponement for 12 months, during which we have seen a series of extreme weather events, of precisely the sorts predicted by climatologists, punctuated too, by multiple pieces of new scientific evidence indicating that the threat to our planet is gathering even quicker than previously believed. Global temperatures are rising faster than expected and despite Paris Agreement ambitious measures, most countries are behind schedule in efforts to reduce carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases.

Clearest demonstrations of the need for stronger remedies have occurred in Mediterranean countries, with this summer to be remembered for wildfires of unusual size and intensity. While some of the fires were caused by human activity, higher-than-normal temperatures and parched vegetation allowed them to spread further in several coastal states, including Algeria, Cyprus, Greece, France, Lebanon and Turkey. As if to underline the volatility generated by climate change, the fires in Turkey’s south were followed days later by flash floods in the north that claimed at least 30 more lives.

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Such examples have become too common, in too many places, and for far too long to qualify as wakeup calls. No longer heralding the impending arrival of long-dreaded climate catastrophe, they demonstrate it is already unfolding, leaving us no choice but to intensify efforts in reversing climate change before it reaches a tipping point. If we cannot, our species faces a grim future of more wildfires, rising sea levels, accelerating ocean acidification, plummeting fish stocks, the widespread submersion of coastal and inland areas, larger and more powerful storms, longer and dryer droughts, ruined harvests, millions of climate refugees and mass starvation.

With most of the Mediterranean region already beset by water scarcity and desertification, it is no surprise that the climate crisis is manifesting itself so dramatically with many Mediterranean states too poor, under-resourced or too badly governed to mount on their own, the comprehensive decarbonization campaigns that wealthier countries can afford. All these factors mean that unless public and private sectors act quickly and effectively, the region will face a future where the 2021 summer seems mild by comparison.    

Despite obstacles, most of these countries have an ace up their sleeve: ample space and near-ideal conditions for offshore wind turbines. Recent study estimates the combined wind-power potential of all 23 Euro-Med countries at almost 1.5 million megawatts. For perspective, the entire global nuclear industry has a capacity of about 400,000MW. This is not to mention the region’s prospects for other forms of renewable energy, including both riverine and marine (wave and tidal) hydrokinetics, geothermal (on and offshore) and solar (200,000-300,000MW).

Throughout planning, design, engineering, construction and installation process, each new renewable energy plant would create well-paying jobs unlocking growth for the Mediterranean countries, several of which suffer from limited access to affordable electricity. If a country installs enough renewable capacity, it may choose to decommission older, dirtier plants, leading to improved air quality and significant cost savings on imports of fossil fuel. Alternatively, a government might decide to export any surplus, earning revenues for debt retirement, social and infrastructure spending, or reinvestment in more renewables.       

A healthy renewables sector would abet the transition from fossil fuels with added capacity instrumental in helping neighboring sub-Saharan Africa in parts that have never been electrified at all.

Recent technological advances are opening new opportunities across the Blue Economy, from larger and more sustainable fisheries (both conventional and aquaculture) and marine tourism to emerging sectors like seabed mining and bioprospecting. The more the region embraces the responsible exploitation of these and other sea-based opportunities, the more its peoples will receive a broad range of social, economic, and environmental rewards.      

But this happy scenario will not come to pass by osmosis. Many Mediterranean countries will require substantial assistance, financial and otherwise, to seize the opportunities before them. The Paris Agreement included commitments by wealthier states to help with financing, but many governments have not lived up the bargain. If the transition to cleaner energy causes undue hardship for already underprivileged populations, popular support for decarbonization could erode.

COP26 may produce new programs, mechanisms, or one-time packages by which wealthier countries can assist poorer ones, but there will be no unconditional handouts with only so many resources to go around, and little time to act. Accordingly, grants and soft loans will likely go to those recipients who can best establish their ability to get things done by articulating a coherent strategy to execute relevant and viable projects. Those who failed to show up with well-developed plans for promising climate projects may well end up at the back of the line endangering the battle widely viewed as the most important challenge we have ever faced.

Roudi Baroudi is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and the author of “Maritime Disputes in the Mediterranean: The Way Forward” a book distributed by the Brookings Institution Press. With more than 40 years of experience in fields including oil and gas, electricity, infrastructure and public policy, he currently serves as CEO of Energy and Environment Holding, an independent consultancy based in Doha, Qatar.